A year after the legalization of marijuana, the country’s cannabis industry is at an all-time high.
On a sultry March evening at The Slate resort in Phuket, I joined a group of fellow foodies for a five-course tasting menu orchestrated by guest chef Steven John. There was tuna tataki and 48-hour pork belly, tiger prawn with pineapple and pomelo, and a zesty pesto linguine, all matched with cocktails specially crafted for the occasion. The food, as expected, was delicious; John, a self-taught chef of Thai-Swiss parentage, is well regarded in Bangkok as the founder of the private-dining service Empty Plates. But as the meal progressed and our party grew increasingly euphoric, it was his showcase ingredient that stole the show: cannabis.
Billed as Thailand’s first gourmet ganja dining experience, the menu, named “Bong Appétit,” explored the once-illegal plant’s culinary potential, from CBD-infused sauerkraut puree to hempseed pasta to a “drunken banana” dessert with cannabis crumble. So too did the accompanying cocktails, each garnished with a distinctive marijuana leaf.
“Cannabis is wonderful for fine dining,” said John, who factors customer weight and tolerance into his recipes. “Everybody loves this.”
Welcome to the new weed wonderland of Thailand, where cannabis is all the rage at cafés, clinics, spas, and specialty shops. Anantara hotels around the country, for instance, now offer spa treatments like the Cannabis Stress-Release Journey, which delivers the pain-relieving qualities of CBD via traditional Thai herbal compresses (luk pra kob). Even the relatively buttoned-down Mandarin Oriental Bangkok is in on the act, with a two-hour CBD oil massage designed to mitigate insomnia or jetlag.
Such offerings have swept Thailand since the process of decriminalizing marijuana began in 2018, when it became the first country in Southeast Asia to legalize the plant for medical research and use. Cannabidiol (CBD), a nonpsychoactive compound that, unlike THC, doesn’t get you high, soon began appearing in spa therapies, ointments, and bottled drinks.
Potent pot flowers were finally legalized last June, turning Thailand into the Amsterdam of Asia. Overnight, food trucks added jars of marijuana buds, and dispensaries sprouted alongside hospitals and hostels. The high times have transformed tourist hot spots from Pai in the north to Phuket in the south, where pot shops flourish and cannabis juices up everything from pizza and pasta to coffee and ice cream (though any weed-infused food products must contain no more than 0.2 percent THC to be legally sold). The only remaining restrictions visitors should be aware of are that you can’t smoke marijuana in public and selling is limited to people over 20 years of age.
“It’s the greatest thing to happen in Thailand in years,” says Tai Taveepanichpan, the young entrepreneur behind a quartet of Bangkok cannabis dispensaries called Four Twenty. Even more such shops are run by Thailand’s top pot company, OG Canna, which currently operates nine outlets with names like Mary Jane, Cloud Nine, and Wonderland. American CEO Benjamin Baskins expects that number to grow to 20 by the end of this year. On my recent visit to the Mary Jane shop on Bangkok’s party-centric Sukhumvit Road, eager “budtenders” offered advice about cannabis strains like Apple Crumble, Banana Glue, Galactic Jack, Soul Mango, and Monkey Gelato. Product descriptions detailed THC content and properties like pain relief or “added excitement in the bedroom.”
And this is only the beginning of a Thai pot boom. There are already more than 5,000 pot shops across Thailand—and that’s not counting the 1,000-plus clinics prescribing medicinal marijuana, a business with huge potential in Southeast Asia’s top medical tourism market. Experts predict the pot industry will reach valuations as high as US$10 billion by the end of the decade.
“This will be huge for medical tourism, and treatment,” said Eric Fleischman, former medical director of Bumrungrad Hospital, Thailand’s leading medical institution. “It will be important for so many things—sleep, pain management, inflammation, anti-aging.” Studies have shown CBD to be effective in alleviating side effects from chemotherapy, as well as an alternative to pain medication with no risk of addiction or overdose, he explained.
While the scene is still evolving in these wild, early days of legal pot, marijuana has unquestionably transformed Thai tourism, with new highs to come. OG Canna, which has invested millions in the industry, is part of Panthera Group, the operator of top Bangkok clubs like Levels and Insanity, and Whisgars whiskey and cigar bars. “As soon as it is legally allowed to do lounges and smoking clubs, we’d be looking at that,” Baskins said.
The ganja gold rush sweeping Thailand is not only rejuvenating an economy devastated by the pandemic, but is moving upscale as shopping malls and event planners join the marijuana bandwagon. On April 20, a day celebrated by cannabis enthusiasts worldwide as Weed Day, an event called Cannex Asia kicked off at Bangkok’s ritzy EmQuartier mall for three days of pot-related festivities, including a Cannabis Cup competition that doled out US$5,000 in prize money for the best bud.
Cannabis cuisine is also on the rise. In late 2021, Ban Lao Rueng in Prachinburi Province became the first Thai restaurant to serve cannabis-infused dishes such as nam prik kapi and tom yum gai soup. Not long after, Bangkok-based fast-food chain The Pizza Company rolled out its Crazy Happy Pizza, a pie topped with a deep-fried marijuana leaf. And while Steven John is leading the way on the gourmet front with his ongoing Bong Appétit dinners, he’s not alone. Another local pot enthusiast is Tim Butler, chef at Bangkok’s Eat Me restaurant. Having invested in pot farms that supply some of Thailand’s top dispensaries, he is keen to explore an herb that was part of Thai cuisine for centuries before being outlawed amid a global campaign against marijuana in the 1930s.
For now, Butler’s experiments are confined to his home kitchen, where I visited him for dinner one night. Famed for his barbecue, the chef sliced some prime wagyu and seasoned it with flakes of different marijuana buds before slapping it on the grill. “As a spice, marijuana is like thyme, but stronger,” he told me, offering samples. “It really brings out the flavor of the meat, doesn’t it?”
Butler doubts that the 0.2 percent THC limit on restaurant meals will be lifted anytime soon. But for home cooks, ganja is fair game, and my meal that night left me not only with a pleasant buzz, but also with a taste of the potential happy times that lie ahead in the Land of Smiles.
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2023 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Green Revolution”).